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Published on: March 6, 2010
Literary Saturday: The Communist Manifesto

Everybody should read The Communist Manifesto, and read it more than once.  Short, fast-moving and written to be understood by a wide audience, it’s a gripping read, a huge intellectual accomplishment, and a way of thinking about the world that has shaped almost everything that came after it.  It was once said that the second […]

Everybody should read The Communist Manifesto, and read it more than once.  Short, fast-moving and written to be understood by a wide audience, it’s a gripping read, a huge intellectual accomplishment, and a way of thinking about the world that has shaped almost everything that came after it.  It was once said that the second edition of Rousseau’s Confessions was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first; The Communist Manifesto has had the same kind of impact on our world.

The Manifesto is wrong, of course, but then almost everything is.  However, most of what is written is pointless and dull.  The Manifesto is anything but, and like all truly great books it is interesting and illuminating even whenor, especially whenit goes off the rails.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dashed it off in the second half of 1847 and published it early in 1848 as revolutionary fervor was sweeping Europe.  As the first copies of The Manifesto began to circulate, King Louis-Phillipe of France felt his throne begin to shake; by the end of February he had abdicated and fled to Britain.  The next month, revolutions broke out in one small German state after the other (Germany would not be unified until 1871).  The revolutionary excitement spread into the Austrian Empire; for a few months it looked as if every king and emperor on the European mainland would be packing his bags.  Even the Pope, who at that time still ruled much of central Italy, was forced to flee Rome as the Romans proclaimed a Republic after 1900 years of imperial and papal rule.

Karl_Marx_Manifesto

But Marx and Engels weren’t interested in anything as trivial as making propaganda for a European revolution.  They believed that they had found the key to all history, the magic decoder ring that made sense out of everything: philosophy, religion, the rise and fall of empires, culture, art.  To this day there are millions of people all over the world who think they were right — and there are hundreds of millions more whose worldview has been shaped at least in part by this explosive little book.

I am one of them myself, though I don’t think many ‘big M’ Marxists would salute me as a comrade.

If you haven’t read the Manifesto, you should — and if you haven’t read it in a while, you should pick it up again.  The Communist Manifesto, with all its shortcomings, is on that short list of books that every educated person should keep coming back to over a lifetime of reading and thought.  Over the decades you can measure your own intellectual growth by the different ways that you read this book.

I could write a book about this book; maybe someday I will.  Actually, I could write two books on the ManifestoWhat Marx and Engels Got Right, and What Marx and Engels Got Wrong.

But for now I just want to highlight one of their breakthrough insights that is extremely useful today — and, as some of this blog’s longtime readers have surely figured out, it’s an insight that heavily influences my approach to history and ideas.  As usual, Marx and Engels pushed it a bit too far, but their core insight– that the way we are related to the economy helps shape our ideas, our sense of right and wrong and our sense of our relationship to broader trends in history–is something I think about almost every day.  I think about it when I try to understand how other people see the world, and I think about it when I’m trying to correct for my own biases and blind spots — asking myself what I’ve missed or where I’ve been unfair.

Marx and Engels weren’t the first people to have this insight, but they integrated it with an approach to the relationship of ideas and history that allowed them to criticize social thought from a new point of view.  They argued that the dominant social groups in each historical era developed a worldview that justified their pretensions to power and privilege, making their particular system the culmination of the historical process or, as The American Interest’s Frank Fukuyama taught Americans to say, the end of history.  Interest groups and power elites don’t just develop ideas and ideologies that favor their interests.  They develop worldviews that are unconscious as well as conscious, that are the foundation of cultures and ideals.  In the feudal age, the nobility and its hired hands synthesized Christianity, Germanic folk customs and classical Greco-Roman ideas into an all-encompassing world vision that stares out at us from a hundred thousand paintings, that colors the poetry of Europe for hundreds of years, and that lives on today in various forms.

In the Manifesto Marx and Engels write about the different forms of ‘socialist’ ideology that were around in 1848 and tie each of these back to specific social groups.  They write about ‘feudal socialism’, the anti-capitalist writings of traditionalists who denounced capitalism for ripping up the old ‘harmonious’ social contract of the Middle Ages.  They write about various forms of ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ socialism as well: utopian ideas about a better future that aren’t grounded in any realistic view of political forces or the deep conflicts in human society.

One can only imagine how they would rip into the pompous, self-deceptive ideas and theories with which our elites surround and comfort themselves today.  The Asian Industrial Revolution, that enormous upheaval destroying the past social organizations and customs from China through India and Pakistan today, in reality is an affair of grinding poverty, immense human suffering and displacement, exploitation as naked and hideous as anything the London poor faced in the days of Charles Dickens, and vast contrasts between the lives of the working poor and the new rich.  Yet in the view of what Marx might well call the ‘Davoisie’, the new international bourgeoisie of our times, all that ugliness and suffering disappears.  It’s expected somehow that those struggling masses will go on ‘peacefully’ suffering and working without disturbing the peaceful stability of the comfortable and the rich.

Marx and Engels would mock and fillet the ideologies we have built around the word ‘development’ and they would demolish the inane models of development that our economists have been producing (and imposing on poor countries) since World War Two.  Their bitter comments on the recent Wall Street bailouts contrasted with the programs of austerity forced on people around the world who had nothing to do with the financial crisis would leap off the page and grab the reader by the lapels.

Contemporary western leftists would rub their hands in joy as Marx and Engels ripped into the smug ideologies of the Davoisie and its closest allies; they would begin to squirm, though, as the two founders of the modern Communist movement turned their attention to the labor movements, Hollywood progressives and radical intellectuals of the advanced countries. The spectacle of trade union leaders in rich countries fighting free trade, and especially of the alliances they’ve made with wealthy agricultural interests in the EU and the United States would fill Marx and Engels with rage and scorn.  Seeking to preserve the high living standards of a handful of privileged workers and civil servants (one of Marx and Engels’ least favorite groups of people), they try to obstruct the growth of productive forces in developing countries that, for all the misery and horror connected with that process, represents the one hope of a human life for billions of people and their children across the planet — and they call themselves ‘progressive’.

I don’t think the various strains of academic radicalism rooted in the New Left of the 1960s would much enjoy a new edition of the Manifesto, either.  Marx and Engels were unreconstructed Old Lefties who saw progressive ideology as being rooted in and concerned with the interests of the masses of the working poor.  The New Left emphasis on identity, ethnicity and self-expression would fill them with contempt.  The academic New Left would, I am pretty certain, appear to Marx and Engels as a new form of vile and self-indulgent petty bourgeois ideology that elevates the historical despair of a class at the end of its tether into a worldview.  That ideology, rampant in the academy today, is what we sometimes call postmodernism.  It’s the belief that the ‘grand narratives’ of history have collapsed, including the Marxist enlightenment of proletarian revolt and the broader Enlightenment narrative of progress.  Instead of a grand social march forward into a better world, society as a whole seems stagnant.  Liberation is no longer a project for society at large; it is something that small groups — cultural, ethnic, sexual minorities — achieve on their own.  It is a kind of dystopian version of Frank Fukuyama’s end of history: things can’t get much better, and they aren’t very good.

Marx and Engels would, I think, excoriate this ideology of ‘tenured radicals’ and foundation staff as the attempt of petty bourgeois intellectuals to console themselves for their own political irrelevance — and to take their own ironic fate as ineffective and marginal critics in a society still dominated by the demands of a capitalist order as the inevitable fate for all mankind.  The ‘struggle’ to get another tenure-track position for an ethnic studies program, or to defeat a rival faction’s candidate for an academic post can be seen, sort of, as the contemporary version of the inspiring political struggles of old.  One is at the barricades, even if all one ever actually does is publish technical articles in obscure journals.  The continuing breakdown of academic disciplines into ever smaller and (at least in some cases) ever less relevant subspecialties reflects the wider breakdown of the social progress into the struggles of various smaller and more specialized minorities to define their identities and carve out some living space.  From an old-fashioned Marxist point of view (and perhaps not only from that perspective) this looks indescribably petty and vain, especially when measured against the enormous scale of the upheavals and social explosions reshaping today’s world.

Now as usual, they would be too brutal and too sweeping in their condemnations.  There are people in the western labor movements who think hard and long about how to connect the interests of working people in the rich world with those in developing countries.  There are plenty of thoughtful and skilled academics out there who do important work and do it well — and postmodernism has more to say for itself than they might allow.  But Marx and Engels would be right to contrast the sense of exhaustion, the tininess of the political vision and ambition of so many contemporary academics with the thundering changes and the billions of working people around the world desperately struggling to get a foothold in the modern economy.  In a world like ours, with billions of poor people and a few hundred million affluent ones, and with technological changes remaking the very nature of industry at a rate the bourgeois entrepreneurs of 1848 could not have imagined, Marx and Engels would not have thought that grand narratives had collapsed.  They would have seen titanic forces taking shape over the horizons and they would have predicted (a little too confidently) an age of revolutionary upheavals as sweeping and perhaps as violent as anything history had ever seen. I suspect they would have predicted that the big ideas of the future would come from out there rather than in here; that it would be people shaped by the struggles in rapidly developing countries who would generate the concepts and inspire the movements who would shape the intellectual as well as the political history of the twenty first century.

I may be missing the point completely; I’m sure that there are readers out there who could ‘unmask my ideology’ and Marxists used to say and show how my own take on the Manifesto reflects my own miserable economic interests and background.  Certainly I’m not going to embrace any wild-eyed ideologies that would let the unwashed hordes past the gates of the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens!  And I’m careful to keep my copy of their collected works where the more excitable members of the grounds staff won’t see it lying around.

Grande_Place_Brussels

Anyway, on my first trip to Brussels something like twenty years ago an American journalist based in the city took me on a walking tour of the city and we passed the Grande Place, the magnificent square in the heart of the old city.  At one corner of the square he pointed out an upscale restaurant.  In 1848 that restaurant had been a seedy tavern where Marx and Engels would meet to go over the drafts of the Manifesto, he said.  By 1990 it was filled with well-heeled tourists, and expense-account bureaucrats and lobbyists working the ins and outs of the European Union.  Across the square was a Godiva chocolate shop. during World War II the SS had used it as a recruiting center to get the more ‘Aryan’ Dutch-speaking Belgians to join up.  It’s the end of history, EU style; I’d love to know what Marx and Engels would think of it.  I think they would regard the social peace in the west since World War II as a rare and short lived interval of relative calm in the midst of a still-accelerating revolutionary process in world history — more eye of the hurricane than end of history.

Read The Communist Manifesto.  It will remind you that history is real, that it matters, and that you must strive to see the world on its own terms, rather than passively accepting the comfortable ideas and perceptions that society encourages you to take for granted.  It may even prepare you for the future by giving you a glimpse into the storms ahead.

Next week on Literary Saturday: the wit and wisdom of Joseph Stalin.   (Just kidding.)

Update: Of course, the reality of the USSR didn’t quite work out as  Marx and Engels hoped.  While checking out Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day blog, I ran across this amazing Brezhnev era piece of  Soviet entertainment.  Whatever ultimately happened in the Cold War,  Socialism was at least as advanced as capitalism when it comes to the  production of vacuous entertainment.  Highly recommended!

show comments
  • Warren Wheeler

    Would that this were required reading in the groves of academe. Brussels has not changed much, save the sprinkling of white youths sporting dreadlocks and knitted caps, trying oh-so self-consciously to be “authentic.”

  • LuizdoPorto

    Mr. Mead, it may be possible to be too brutal in condemning the Davoisie, but I sincerely fail to see how to chastise enough the tenured radicals and their malthusian and authoritarian counterparts in government.
    Their ill thought out so called programs are too big a threat to solvency, to prosperity and to liberty.
    Also they are bound to fail, because they produce the type of politics that you dissected so well in your critique of the agw movement.

  • Luke Lea

    First off, excellent essay. Well-written, full of insight. You are at the top of your game.

    And I agree with you about the importance of The Communist Manifesto.

    Where I disagree is your take (or would it have been Marx’s take?) on the American labor movement and the issue of free trade. You write that “seeking to preserve the high living standards of a handful of privileged workers . . . they try to obstruct the growth of productive forces in developing countries that, for all the misery and horror connected with that process, represents the one hope of a human life for billions of people and their children across the planet.”

    No doubt this was the point-of-view of the late Paul Samuelson when he stood up in the East Room of the White House (this would be 1993 or 1994) and argued in favor of Nafta and Gatt. For in making his argument he was forced to engage in a disingenuous lie, one which he in fact knew to be a lie, namely, that free trade could be expected to automatically redound to the benefit of American working families. The truth was that this was, so far from being automatic, only a theoretical possibility which depended upon a radical redistribution of income from labor to capital. (See Heckscher, Eli F., “The Effects of World Trade on the Distribution of Income,” Ekonomisk Tidscrift 21: 497-512, (Upsala, 1920), English translation in Hekscher-Ohlin Trade Theory (MIT Press, 1991).

    Otherwise the process of “factor price equalization,” as Samuelson himself dubbed it, could be expected to steadily reduce American wages and working conditions to some point intermediate between their present position and that of workers in China (forget about India and Mexico). That will be considerably below where they are now.

    We are now witnessing the gradual unfolding of that process — a process that, absent a program of far-reaching income redistribution in the U.S. (fat chance), promises to destabilize American politics and ultimately undermine the new system of trade between the East and the West. That will have tragic consequences for the Eur-Asian continent. For once trade barriers are re-erected between China and the U.S., expect China to go on a military rampage with her neighbors, Russia above all. Her leaders will see this as the only way to maintain political and economic stability at home, given China’s 25 million unemployed bachelors of military age. Furthermore, it will gratify their sense of China’s new status as a major world power, constituting, in their all-too-human eyes, a suitable revenge for centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West.

    There is a grim inevitability as this historical process unfolds — an inevitability which Marx himself might have been able to appreciate had he had a better understanding of neo-classical wage theory. The only alternative would seem to be an unlikely turn towards FDR-style politics here in the U.S., a turn which President Obama seems incapable of leading. I therefore expect American troops to be on the front-lines in the Urals before this whole tragedy is over. Thanks, Paul Samuelson.


    Luke

  • http://www.daylightresearch.com Steve

    Mr. Mead: first I want to say that I wish we were neighbors. I’ve seen you on the News Hour and your wiriting confirms my impression that you are truly an affable fellow.

    If you read ‘The New Science of Politics’ by Eric Voegelin you will be changed forever. I won’t go on about him but I hope you will pick him up. He died an old man 25 years ago. Aside from a small following, he is virtually unknwon. He is to the philosophy of history as Bach was to music before Mendelsson came along. Perhaps you could be his Mendelsson.

    Every word of your essay on the Manifesto screams for a Voegelinian interpretation.

  • fahznab

    …and lest we not forget Red China Inc. where historical continuity dwarfs the West, and allows similar analogies to run parallel to our western political economic structures, yet having emerged much more rapidly, while remaining traditional yet demonstrating rapid “development” – oh, and suppling the rope!

  • peter38a

    Mr. Mead, a fine article. It reminded me of another I read many years ago wherein the author suggested that a great deal of the world’s views could be found in three books: the CM, the Bible and the Koran. He went on to suggest that in college, first year, all three books would be taught by a “conservative.” The next year by a “liberal” thinker in each area and finally by a “moderate.” It always struck me as an instructive curriculum.

  • fw

    It’s been a while since I looked at the Communist Manifesto, but Marx and Engels probably owe a debt to Nietzsche, with his argument that all morality is essentially self-serving, with the weak elevating the virtues of the humble and the strong celebrating power. For all I know, they acknowledged the genealogy of that idea.

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  • JLD

    “The Asian Industrial Revolution, that enormous upheaval destroying the past social organizations and customs from China through India and Pakistan today, in reality is an affair of grinding poverty, immense human suffering and displacement…”

    I feel this statement is not just wrong but wildly incorrect. Having spent most of the last 20 years in Asia, much of it in regional cities in China, I’ve seen up close how people’s lives have been transformed from grinding poverty into a hopeful future. Of course there are negatives (environment, social disruption), but they are overwhelmingly countered by positives (education, opportunity, wealth, diet, etc.).

    Sorry to be so pointed, but I feel disinformation like this is really unhelpful, and can have very negative consequences if widely believed.

  • John Barker

    You can get the Manifesto for free at Google books in a PDF file. Google books is an awesome site that every book lover should turn to first when looking for good deals, free samples and library locations.

  • SC Mike

    Did you really mean to write “the wit and wisdom of Joseph Stalin” instead of what would be the much longer work “Stalin’s Greatest Hits”? “We will Beria” — wait, that was from “The Survivor”… Nice lip-synching in the clip, BTW. Thank you.

    I think it’s wonderful that the Davoisie are able to get together annually, and we should all encourage them, even go so far as to recommend that they meet more frequently and in other venues. Why should the Swiss hospitality industry be the sole beneficiaries of the wise ones’ extravagance?

    The most important issue for those of us who do productive work is to keep the Davoisie away from any electoral office or appointed position where they might try to implement some sort of grand plan. (The great service the UN renders is to provide sinecures for folks no longer useful in the country of their origin: nice offices and allowances along with fine dining and great theater in a once great city.)

    The analysis in the Communist Manifesto is compelling but wrong in many details. It’s a pity that neither Luke Lea nor Marx nor Engels never met nor read de Tocqueville, but I guess they traveled in different circles and never crossed paths in Davos or elsewhere; such a meeting would have benefitted all parties. Not that M&E would have altered their recommendations, but they’d have had a bit less confidence after a more thorough look at Jacksonian America.

    What JLD mentions about the Yellow Hordes is true — they are improving their lot from misery to prosperity — and free trade, free markets, positive cultural traits, and highly motivated individuals are the key.

    Now before folks jump on China’s currency manipulations and South Korea’s trade restrictions, take a look at the gift Britain gave Hong Kong in appointing John Cowperthwaite, the epitome of anti- Davoisie, as the colony’s financial secretary. With millions streaming into the city from reddening China, Hong Kong was an isle of desperation and poverty. By 1960 average per capita income in Hong Kong was 28 percent of that in Great Britain according to statistics gathered by the evil economist, Milton Friedman.

    Cowperthwaite was a Scotsman and very much a disciple of Adam Smith. At the time, while Britain was moving to a socialist and welfare state, Cowperthwaite insisted that Hong Kong practice laissez-faire. He refused to impose any tariffs. He insisted on keeping taxes down.

    I met Cowperthwaite in 1963 on my next visit to Hong Kong. I remember asking him about the paucity of statistics. He answered, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.’’ How wise!

    By 1996, average per capita income in Hong Kong had risen to 137 percent of that in Britain.

    Planning for income redistribution is just a couple of steps away from our mess of tax credits, incentives, penalties, and other counterproductive complexities that drive otherwise sane folks mad. And that’s just the type of crapola that the Davoisie are up to when they’re not at meetings, so by all means, keep them meeting and eating day in, day out, just don’t let them be in charge of anything grander than their household.

    It strikes me that tea-partiers — indeed, most Americans — don’t hate the government. They are simply sick of the shenanigans our officeholders have been up to, knowing that the productive, responsible folks and their offspring will have to pay for the mess. The next hammer to pound the common nails is probably the public pension bailouts. Yet for an example of what not to do we have the once-golden state refusing to take action on outrageous pensions. Is there not even one program that can stand losing a buck or two?

    Even the great American foundations have shifted their focus to politics from effecting real change like they did seventy years ago by funding real heroes of the 20th century like Norman Borlaug or Fred Soper, midwesterners who saved millions of lives through inspiration, perspiration, and dedication. Where are the highways, bridges, and monuments to them? Probably in India and Brazil. Sheesh.

    Sorry to rant at your place, Mead. I hope you’ll find the time, wit, and energy to share your thoughts on Democracy in America, especially de Tocqueville’s speculations on the future of America.

  • Luke Lea

    SC Mike has some interesting comments, and I can see why he might write, “Planning for income redistribution is just a couple of steps away from our mess of tax credits, incentives, penalties, and other counterproductive complexities.” The truth is we don’t know how to do income redistribution, at least not in a way that is fair and efficient and that would not hamper the savings, investment, and entrepreneurial innovation upon which our future prosperity depends. Certainly the graduated income tax and means-tested welfare payments are not the answer; they both destroy the proportionality between effort and reward.

    But does this mean the goal is impossible? Have we reached the final end in our understanding of how market economies work and how they might be adjusted to maximize the general welfare?

  • SC Mike

    Luke Lee – I see in today’s WaPo and WSJ that the departments of Justice and Education are teaming up to go after schools for not taking “disparate impact” seriously. Some schools are still relying on grades, class standing, and SAT scores to the detriment of some minorities. I suspect that the minorities the civil servants and political appointees favor do no include the usual suspects, the Yellow Horde. Heck, without the Chinese, Japanese, folks from the Punjab, and so forth, we boomer white guys would really be at the bottom of the hate barrel, but we do recognize that some Asian compadres get screwed a little worse the we do.

    My point with that aside is why worry about artificial income distribution so much? Those folks wallowing in poverty in Hong Kong sixty years ago did the traditional “pull yourself up by your sandal straps” because they knew that it was their own effort, not a government credit or handout or patronage job that was going to get them ahead. So they took care of their aging relatives and worked hard for their kids, and their kids in turn did the same thing, and most of those folks became prosperous. On their own with some help from family and friends. The government’s role was to detain the bad guys, provide for public safety and health, and otherwise just let folks build their own futures.

    The same sort of thing used to happen here in Vespucciland. The native-born and new arrivals wanted the opportunity to achieve their potential based on their efforts, luck, savvy, and perseverance; that was their idea of fairness.

    Since then we’ve really managed to make a mess of the meritocracy ideal and the forecast is grim because the elites in government, the academy, and elsewhere think that they know what’s best and fair for each of us better than any of us can know.

  • Russ Wood

    Prof. Mead, great essay. While I would acknowledge problems, I think that you significantly understate the benefits in terms of pulling poor people, particularly in East Asia, from miserable poverty to something like a middle-class existence. (And the on-going growth of consumption by that large and ever-growing middle class is perhaps the biggest reason that global warming, if human-caused, is going to be such a difficult problem to solve.) Yes many have not made it up the ladder, but globalism and capitalism surely are the most powerful anti-poverty programs in human history.

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